Northwestern State’s winless start to Southland Conference play continued Tuesday night, but while falling 89-79 to league unbeaten Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, the Demons hardly looked lost.
NSU played frenetically and didn’t let the veteran-laden Islanders (14-3 overall, 5-0 in the Southland) cruise home. The Demons (3-13, 0-6) led for much of the first half, and kept making runs at A&MCC to stay within striking distance, getting as close as 77-73 with 2:05 to go.
But in a matchup of two of the NCAA’s best free throw shooting teams, neither lived up to their top 10 averages, and NSU’s bid for an upset was spoiled in part by 69 percent aim at the line, including going just 2-for-4 after climbing within four points.
“We played an excellent team, a very well-coached team with eight seniors, and they made more plays coming down the stretch than we did,” said Demons’ coach Mike McConathy. “We cut a 16-point deficit down to four and had chances to get even closer, but our missed free throws, missed assignments and untimely missed shots helped them hold us off.
“But I’m really pleased with the effort and the willingness to be coached. A lot of teams with our record would be fragmenting, but these guys are pulling closer together,” he said. “I think we’re a lot better than 3-13 and 0-6 today, and we were Saturday at Lamar. Prior to that, I don’t know. We’re getting better, and we’re going to continue to improve with continuous buy-in from all of our players. Some who didn’t get into the game much, if at all, tonight, have to continue to get better so they can help us when they’re called upon. In our system, everybody matters.”
Demons’ freshman center Ishmael Lane had a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
“I’m really proud of how aggressive he was, and how he cashed in when the other guys did a good job getting him the ball,” said McConathy after Lane made 7-of-10 shots from the floor and snagged three offensive rebounds.
Zeek Woodley and Sabri Thompson each scored 17, with Thompson getting all but three in the second-half surges, and adding seven rebounds.
The Islanders got a game-high 26 points and 9 rebounds by Ehab Amin off the bench, with Brandon Pye pumping in 17 as they won their seventh straight.
By halftime, the Demons were besieged by a familiar frustration – a stellar shooting performance from behind the 3-point arc by a Southland foe. Entering league play, NSU ranked among national leaders by limiting 10 foes, including five Power 5 conference teams, to 29 percent aim on 3-pointers. But Southland teams had poured in 43 percent in the first five league games, and A&MCC bettered that.
The Islanders were better behind the arc than in front of it while opening a 44-35 lead. They sank 8 of 18 on 3-pointers, just 7 of 18 closer in.
But with an intense defensive effort and scrambling play, the Demons had the edge for a while, before the visitors pitched in three treys and went on a 15-5 run in under five minutes to climb ahead 30-25 with 6:19 showing in the half.
NSU closed within 33-31 with 3:54 left on a Thompson 3, but in character, the Islanders answered against the shot clock on their next possession with a trey from Pye and started an 11-4 spurt to close the half.
Pye posted 15 points by then, making 3 of 5 behind the arc. The visitors’ 44 percent aim from distance was 11 percentage points above their season average.
When NSU opened the second half missing four of its first five shots, A&MCC stretched the lead to 53-38.
Behind Thompson and Lane, the Demons battled back within 55-48 but another Islanders’ 3, and a steal and layup immediately following, rebuilt the spread in a 7-0 burst into a 14-point advantage midway through the second half.
But the plucky Demons weren’t done just yet, showing resolve as they cut what grew to a 16-point spread back to 68-60 with just over seven minutes showing.
NSU’s biggest problem was the caliber of the opponent. The Islanders, who have lost only to Texas, Texas A&M and Wisconsin, mounted a 7-1 spurt to go up 75-61 and withstood a final frantic Demon surge down the stretch.
The Demons hit the road again for two more Southland games, Saturday at McNeese and Monday at Nicholls, before opening a three-game homestand Jan. 30 against Southeastern Louisiana.